In the spring of 1997, the literary quarterly Granta published an issue devoted to India’s Golden Jubilee. The tone was cautious but celebratory: on the cover, the country’s name was printed in bright red letters, followed by an exclamation point. Fifty years after partition, an independent India was rapidly establishing itself as an international power. The issue, which consisted largely of contributions from native Indians writing in English, was a testament both to the country’s extraordinary intellectual and artistic richness, and to one of the few legacies of British colonialism that could be unequivocally celebrated by readers in South Asia and the West: a common language. Seventeen years after Salman Rushdie’s shot across the bow with “Midnight’s Children,” a new generation of Indian writers was, in Granta’s words, “matching India’s new vibrancy with their own.”
In the ensuing years, the American appetite for Indian culture has only grown. Many of the writers who arrived on the scene in the 1980s and ’90s — Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy (whose wildly successful novel “The God of Small Things” was first serialized in Granta), Amit Chaudhuri — continued to publish fiction and reportage, and a new wave of novelists, including Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, went on to write prize-winning, best-selling books. Readers of Roy, Desai or Adiga — not to mention the viewers who flocked to “Slumdog Millionaire” — have not been spared portraits of Indian life’s miseries (caste-based discrimination, horrific poverty). But the folkloric and redemptive aspects of the stories, already familiar thanks to Rushdie’s magic realism and the more romantic understandings of Hinduism associated with the Kama Sutra, have merely solidified Westerners’ rosy vision of India. These books and films have also complemented the work of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, who was born in London and raised in Rhode Island and has written vividly about Indian-Americans. The Indian experience, however foreign, has become part of the American experience.
Now, Granta has assembled another well-timed issue devoted to the subcontinent, but this time the subject is Pakistan, partition’s other child (GRANTA 112: Pakistan, $16.99). In the past few years, several Pakistani writers — including Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie, contributors to the Granta project — have been praised for their fiction. “I think everyone has been waiting for Pakistani literature to burst out,” Fatima Bhutto, another Granta contributor (and a niece and granddaughter of Pakistani prime ministers), told me recently. “It’s always been there, and yet it has been untapped.”
But there is no exclamation point on this colorfully designed Granta cover (inspired by Pakistan’s painted buses and trucks), and the collection lacks the whimsy that Americans simplistically identify with India. Granta’s Pakistan is a country of jihadists, anti-Americanism and increasingly misogynistic and brutal forms of Islam. Mohsin Hamid’s terse short story, for example, is a first-person tale of being beheaded; it ends with the narrator describing “the sound of my blood rushing out.”
Such subject matter will hardly surprise American audiences. It’s almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading about Pakistan’s war with fundamentalists, its corruption and its willingness (or unwillingness) to help the American military in Afghanistan. “We are getting attention. It’s a Pakistani moment,” Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose story collection garnered raves last year, said to me. But more than news reports, this issue of Granta forces an uncomfortably close confrontation with American foreign policy and the resentment it rightly or wrongly engenders.
The collection also reflects debates over the degree to which Muslims can and want to assimilate to the West, debates that have crossed the Atlantic with the controversy over the planned Islamic center near ground zero. While Indian immigrants are thought to arrive in the United States with vibrant traditions, Americans, post-9/11, worry that transplanted Pakistanis hold dangerous religious and ideological beliefs. It is to the credit of Granta’s contributors that they do not skirt these realities. But how eager will American readers be to really confront them?
Indian writers like Roy and Rushdie can hardly be accused of whitewashing the status of women in India. But the Pakistani contributors to Granta are particularly attuned to the misogyny that has been so central to recent debates over Islam. The longest entry, “Leila in the Wilderness,” a novella by Nadeem Aslam, concerns a Pakistani whose husband physically and mentally abuses her because she is unable to give birth to a male child. Mohammed Hanif’s story “Butt and Bhatti” is also unsparing in its portrayal of gender relations, with a male protagonist who is unable to divorce romance from violence. “The Sins of the Mother,” by Jamil Ahmad, is even more squirm-inducing: his story recounts the attempts of a couple to escape their families, and the gruesome stoning that follows.
If these tales are excruciating, the contributors’ critique of American foreign policy may make some readers uncomfortable in an entirely different way. Many of the writers describe the harm done to Pakistan in the 1980s, when the American-backed dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq financed the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The secular ideals of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (evoked in “Portrait of Jinnah,” an essay by the New York Times correspondent Jane Perlez), vanished in Zia’s increasingly Islamicized country. Even the sympathetic characters here are full of rage at America. “A country demoralized and humiliated by its myriad problems could either turn reflective, or it could simply blame everyone else,” the novelist Kamila Shamsie writes in “Pop Idols,” her essay about growing up in Karachi immersed in John Hughes movies and Madonna records. Many characters in these stories have chosen blame.
While Arundhati Roy and others have fiercely criticized American foreign policy, those tensions tend not to be at the center of Indian fiction. But perhaps the starkest difference between this collection and the Indian diaspora literature of recent decades is the depiction of immigrant life. Pakistani immigrants, especially in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, face challenges completely different from those of their Hindu counterparts from India. (Of course India has a huge Muslim population, but the country is seen as a victim rather than a perpetrator of terrorism.) “Restless,” Aamer Hussein’s account of his formative years in London, and Sarfraz Manzoor’s “White Girls,” a rumination on interracial romance, are funny and poignant. But the most famous Pakistani immigrant in America, and the one whose story is told at length here in a piece of reportage by the American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lorraine Adams and the Pakistani journalist Ayesha Nasir, is Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber. The essay somewhat glibly presents his radicalism as a result of American foreign policy, but it does highlight some of the harsher realities confronting Pakistani-Americans. Shahzad’s inability to fit in — a theme treated with delicate melancholy in the immigrant tales of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri — is less melancholy than terrifying.
For all the violence and brutality in this collection, the reader does get glimpses of a less visible Pakistan. (In a humorous touch, the photographer-protagonist of Uzma Aslam Khan’s story “Ice, Mating” is rebuked for not taking war photographs, and is told that his more artistic snapshots lack “authenticity.”) The great value of Granta’s compilation is that it shows us this side of the country while never ignoring the crueler, more vicious aspects of Pakistani society. If cross-cultural interaction can play a part in minimizing animosities and encouraging amity, this collection is a good place to start.
Isaac Chotiner is executive editor of The Book, the online book review of The New Republic. This article was published in The New York Times.
Granta Pakistan is available for pre-order here.